Monday, July 07, 2008
Uptight with Dassin and Dee
I hadn't seen Jules Dassin's Uptight, until the Brooklyn Academy of Music showed it yesterday afternoon as part of its Afro-Punk Festival. Nor had the rest of the audience. Nor, in fact, had its co-star and co-writer, Ruby Dee, who was present at the screening. She recalled seeing a version of the film, which Paramount let escape at the tail end of turbulent 1968, but not in its final form. "As we were finishing the shoot, Dr. King was assassinated, so Jules took his cameras down to Memphis and Atlanta and incorporated some of that footage into the beginning of the film," Dee said. "We then rewrote and reshot some of the film to reflect what had just happened."
Revisiting Uptight (the title on the print, not Up Tight!, as I have seen it in reference materials) is like opening a time capsule. Some of what's inside has faded away, but much of it has a surprising, close-to-the-ground vitality. Dee and co-star Julian Mayfield, a novelist, playwright, and political activist, knew the black power movement from the inside, and their observations--sharp, hopeful, and critical--shaped Dassin's idea to remake John Ford's 1935 classic The Informer in 60's America. This was Dassin's first U.S. production since 1950's Night and the City; the Communist witch hunts that seized Hollywood sent him into European exile, where after a period of assimilation he made the hits Rififi (1955), Never on Sunday, for which he was nominated for two Oscars in the blacklist-breaking year of 1960, and Topkapi (1964).
Dassin's post-Topkapi features are fairly difficult to see, and the received wisdom is that they aren't worth the effort. But Uptight encourages renewed exploration. It was filmed in Dee's hometown, Cleveland, in the Hough neighborhood, which had experienced racial unrest in July 1966. The shattered city, shot in morose color by the great Boris Kaufman, is as much a seething presence in the picture as New York is in Dassin's Naked City and the London of Night and the City. (With no photos from the film available online, I borrowed this image, taken during the location shoot, from Cleveland.com.) The image, suffused by the jangled soul of Booker T. and the M.G.'s that courses through the soundtrack, has a weary, morning-after texture that fits the aftermath of the assassination.
Dassin begins the picture with stirring footage of King's funeral procession (his casket, carried in a simple farm wagon, was drawn by mules), then cuts to the claustrophobia of the inner city, where revolutionaries sick of the repeated failure of his Gandhian tactics plot revenge. Guns are stolen, a security guard is killed, and agitator Johnny Wells (Max Julien, future star of The Mack) is on the run. Johnny is a friend of Tank (Mayfield), a laid-off steelworker, prone to drink, who is distrusted by most of the slicker, faster-talking rebels, led by the charismatic B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques). Tank, a symbol of black powerlessness and an anachronism in changing times, is pitied by his sometime girlfriend Laurie (Dee), a single mother at loose ends due to money troubles, and swayed by police informant Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne), who makes no bones about being "a nigger, a stoolpigeon, and a faggot." Spurned by the movement, Tank goes to the police with what he knows about Johnny, setting up a tense shootout and sealing his fate, the only black liberation he is fated to know.
Featuring a host of familiar faces in supporting parts (including Frank Silvera, Janet MacLachlan, Ketty Lester, Dick Anthony Williams, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, and Juanita Moore, kindly reproachful in a key scene) Uptight is a socially conscious neo-noir, a soul brother to Dassin's 40s and 50s pictures. The cast is fine, with Mayfield the reverse image of Richard Widmark's desperate slickster in Night and the City and Browne dignifying a stereotypical part (Dee mentioned that homosexual intellectuals like Clarence were also outcasts from the movement, though the movie segregates him a little too obviously.) Besides its portrait of the black community under siege by poverty and divisiveness the movie also offers Dassin's take on informants (clear-eyed and jaundiced in equal measure) and blacklisting, with a moderate figure (Silvera) warning of camps for dissidents should the revolution explode.
Uptight received sympathetic if unenthusiastic reviews from Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert, and may have felt like salt rubbed into the open wound that was 1968 on its late December release. (Dee says Paramount was apprehensive about the movie, which in its brief release was as successful as Iraq war films are today.) Reviews mention an impatience with its dated, "with it" style, and I braced myself for a full-frontal assault of period camera tricks. But it never really came. The Informer had something of an Expressionist bent, and Uptight some correlative imagery. The credits unfold across an animated segment, a bleed of positive and despairing images etched in by Oscar-winning animators John and Faith Hubley. Death scenes are twinned with similarly spinning camerawork, one which cuts to a turntable in motion, and one sequence is filmed man-on-the-street style. The goofiest segment--where Tank teases caricatured white thrill-seekers in an arcade with a tirade about the forthcoming revolution, a scene shot in distorting funhouse mirrors--was warmly greeted by the audience, perhaps as a stylistic release from the nervous-making handheld and tracking shots prior.
Seeing Uptight after all these decades, in a 40th anniversary year rich with reflection and a new dream for America, proved a fitting epitaph for Dassin and Browne, both recently departed, and a happy ending for the 83-year-old Dee, who said tracking down the film had proved elusive till now (she mentioned another "lost" project, I believe a documentary she had produced about Joe Louis). BAM screens the picture (in an acceptable print) again this Tuesday, July 8, at 4:30pm. My hope for Uptight is that its distributor (or Legend Films, which has been putting some of Paramount's more obscure titles on DVD), will take on its first-ever home video release of Uptight as a not-so-far-in-the-future project.